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Video games dominate Britain’s entertainment industry, yet we lack the critical vocabulary to unders

Cultural realities tend to lag behind economic ones. How else to explain that the UK’s biggest (worth £4.5bn-plus in annual sales) and fastest-growing (at close to 20 per cent annually) entertainment medium still barely registers on the nation’s more rarefied intellectual radar? I am talking, of course, about video games – as the field of interactive entertainment still rather quaintly tends to be known. And the reason for its neglect is not so much snobbery as a gaping absence in our critical vocabulary and sensibilities.

When, today, we ask a question such as “Is it art?” we are no longer looking for a yes or no answer. The 20th century decided that urinals, cans of soup, recorded silence, heaps of bricks and fake human excrement could all be art, of a certain kind. Under these circumstances, it would be more than a little perverse to deny the idea of art to objects as lovingly crafted, as considered and as creative as video games. The question that’s really at stake is something more specific. If video games are art, what kind of art are they? What are their particular attributes and potential? And, perhaps most importantly, just how good are they?

I recently posed similar questions to someone who is very definitely both an artist and a gamer: the writer Naomi Alderman. Alderman’s first novel, Disobedience, appeared in 2006 and won her the Orange Award for New Writers. In parallel to her work as a literary writer, however, she also spent three years pursuing a very different kind of career: that of lead writer on the experimental “alternate reality” game Perplex City. To many authors, such a venture might have felt like a period of time away from “real” writing. Yet, Alderman explained, for her it was more a discovery that these two modes of writing were not only compatible, but symbiotic. I asked her whether she had preferred working on her novel or on the game. “I couldn’t choose,” she said. “I feel that if I were to give up either the novel or the game, I wouldn’t be able to do the other.”

It’s a creative interconnection Alderman traces back to her childhood. “My first memory of playing a game was around 1981, when my mum took me to the Puffin Club exhibition, a kind of roadshow for kids who read books published by Puffin. I remember they had a bank of computers at this one where you could queue up to get ten minutes playing a text-based adventure game. And I thought, ‘This is absolutely brilliant.’ I was fascinated.” These games were some of the first things it was possible to play on a computer in which plot and character meant more than a handful of pixels dashing across the screen. For Alderman, as for many others, the experience was closely associated “with stories and with the idea of being able to walk into a story”. And the dizzying kind of thought experiment that the best fiction can undertake – its gleeful defiance of the rules of time and nature – lies close to the heart of what video games do best.

As a modern example, Alderman describes a game called Katamari. In it, for want of a better description, you roll stuff up. You control, she tells me, “a little ball, which is effectively sticky, and you’re rolling it around a landscape picking stuff up. As you do so, your ball gets bigger and bigger. It’s almost impossible to explain how much fun this is, the pleasure of growing your little ball, which starts off just big enough to pick up pins and sweets from a tabletop and ends up picking envelopes, then televisions, then tables, then houses, then streets; until in the end you can roll it across the whole world picking up clouds and continents.”

Katamari may sound like an oddity, but its pleasures are typical of a central kind of video-game experience, in that they are in part architectural: something one inhabits and encounters incrementally; a space designed to be occupied and experienced rather than viewed simply as a whole. Players in a well-made game will relish not just its appearance but also the feel of exploring and gradually mastering its unreal space. Yet, in what sense is any of this art, or even artistic? Just as every word within a novel has to be written, of course, every single element of any video game has to be crafted from scratch. To talk about the “art” element of games is, I would argue, to talk about the point at which this fantastically intricate undertaking achieves a particular concentration, complexity and resonance.

It’s worth remembering, too, just how young a medium video games are. Commercial games have existed for barely 30 years; the analogy with film, now almost 120 years old, is an illuminating one. In December 1895, the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, showed the first films of real-life images to a paying audience, in Paris. This, clearly, was a medium, but not yet an art form; and for its first decade, film remained largely a novelty, a technology that astounded viewers with images such as trains rushing into a station, sending early audiences running out of cinemas in terror. It took several decades for film to master its own, unique artistic language: cinematography. It took time, too, for audiences to expect more from it than raw wonder or exhilaration. Yet today you would be hard-pushed to find a single person who does not admire at least one film as a work of art.

If, however, you ask about video games, the chances are that you’ll find plenty of people who don’t play them at all, let alone consider them of any artistic interest. This is hardly surprising: at first glance it can seem that many games remain, in artistic terms, at the level of cinema’s train entering a station – occasions for technological shock and awe, rather than for the more densely refined emotions of art.

Yet the nature of games as a creative medium has changed profoundly in recent years – as I discovered when I spoke to Justin Villiers, an award-winning screenwriter and film-maker who since late 2007 has been plying his trade in the realm of video games. Even a few years ago, he explained, his career move would have been artistically unthinkable. “In the old days, the games industry fed on itself. You’d have designers who were brought up on video games writing games themselves, so they were entirely self-referential; all the characters sounded like refugees from weak Star Trek episodes or Lord of the Rings out-takes. But now there is new blood in the industry – people with backgrounds in cinema and theatre and comic books and television. In the area in which I work, writing and direction, games are just starting to offer genuine catharsis, or to bring about epiphanies; they’re becoming more than simple tools to sublimate our desires or our fight for survival.”

I suggest the film analogy, and wonder what stage of cinema games now correspond to. “It reminds me of the late 1960s and early 1970s, because there were no rules, or, as soon as there were some, someone would come along and break them. Kubrick needed a lens for 2001: a Space Odyssey that didn’t exist, so, together with the director of photography, he invented one.” How does this translate to the world of games? “It’s like that in the industry right now. Around a table you have the creative director, lead animator, game designer, sound designer and me, and we’re all trying to work out how to create a moment in a game or a sequence that has never been done before, ever.”

Villiers is, he admits, an unlikely evangelist: someone who was initially deeply sceptical of games’ claims as art. But it would be wrong, he concedes, simply to assume that the current explosion of talent within the gaming industry will allow it to overtake film or television as a storytelling medium. Today’s best games may be as good as some films in their scripts, performances, art direction and suchlike. But most are still much worse; and in any case, the most cinematic games are already splitting off into a hybrid subgenre that lies outside the mainstream of gaming. If we are to understand the future of games, as both a medium and an art form, we must look to what is unique about them. And that is their interactivity.

To explore this further, I spoke to a game designer who is responsible for some of the most visionary titles to appear in recent years – Jenova Chen. Chen is co-founder of the California-based games studio thatgamecompany, a young firm whose mission, as he explains it, is breathtakingly simple: to produce games that are “beneficial and relevant to adult life; that can touch you as books, films and music can”.

Chen’s latest game, Flower, is the partial fulfilment of these ambitions, a work whose genesis in many ways seems closer to that of a poem or painting than an interactive entertainment. “I grew up in Shanghai,” he explains. “A huge city, one of the world’s biggest and most polluted. Then I came to America and one day I was driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco and I saw endless fields of green grass, and rows and rows of windmill farms. And I was shocked, because up until then I had never seen a scene like this. So I started to think: wouldn’t it be nice for people living in a city to turn a games console into a portal, leading into these endless green fields?”

From this grew a game that is both incredibly simple and utterly compelling. You control a petal from a single flower, and must move it around a shimmering landscape of fields and a gradually approaching city by directing a wind to blow it along, gathering other petals from other flowers as you go. Touch a button on the control pad to make the wind blow harder; let go to soften it; gently shift the controller in the air to change directions. You can, as I did on my first play, simply trace eddies in the air, or gust between tens of thousands of blades of grass. Or you can press further into the world of the game and begin to learn how the landscape of both city and fields is altered by your touch, springing into light and life as you pass.

“We want the player to feel like they are healing,” Chen tells me, “that they are creating life and energy and spreading light and love.” If this sounds hopelessly naive, it is important to remember that the sophistication of a game experience depends not so much on its conceptual complexity as on the intricacy of its execution. In Flower, immense effort has gone into making something that appears simple and beautiful, but that is minutely reactive and adaptable. Here, the sensation of “flow” – of immersion in the task of illumination and exploration – connects to some of those fundamental emotions that are the basis of all enduring art: its ability to enthral and transport its audience, to stir in them a heightened sense of time and place.

Still, an important question remains. What can’t games do? On the one hand, work such as Chen’s points to a huge potential audience for whole new genres of game. On the other hand, there are certain limitations inherent in the very fabric of an interactive medium, perhaps the most important of which is also the most basic: its lack of inevitability. As the tech-savvy critic and author Steven Poole has argued, “great stories depend for their effect on irreversibility – and this is because life, too, is irreversible. The pity and terror that Aristotle says we feel as spectators to a tragedy are clearly dependent on our apprehension of circumstances that cannot be undone.” Games have only a limited, and often incidental, ability to convey such feelings.

Thus, the greatest pleasure of games is immersion: you move, explore and learn, sometimes in the company of thousands of other players. There is nothing inherently mindless about such an interaction; but nor should there be any question of games replacing books or films. Instead – just as the printed word, recorded music and moving images have already done – this interactive art will continue to develop along with its audience. It will, I believe, become one of the central ways in which we seek to understand (and distract, and delight) ourselves in the 21st century. And, for the coming generations – for which the world before video games will seem as remote a past as one without cinema does to us – the best gift we can bequeath is a muscular and discerning critical engagement.

Tom Chatfield is the arts and books editor of Prospect magazine. His book on the culture of video games, “Gameland”, is forthcoming from Virgin Books (£18.99)

VIDEO GAMES: THE CANON

Pong (1972). The first true video game. Bounce a square white blob between two white bats. A software revolution.

Pac-Man (1980). A little yellow ball, in a maze, eating dots, being chased by ghosts. The beauty of interactive complexity arising from something simple and slightly crazy – and still fiendishly fun today.

Tetris (1989). This utterly abstract puzzle of falling blocks and vanishing lines was launched on the Nintendo Game Boy and single-handedly guaranteed the hand-held console’s triumph as a global phenomenon. Perhaps the purest logical play experience ever created.

Civilization (1991). View the world from the top down and guide a civilisation from hunter-gathering to landing on the moon. Hours, days and months of utterly absorbing micromanagement.

Doom (1993). Run around a scary maze wielding a selection of big guns being chased by aliens. Then chase your friends. Doom did it first and created a genre. For the first time, a computer had made grown men tremble.

Ultima Online (1997). Enter a living, breathing online world with thousands of other players; become a tradesman, buy your own house, chat, make and betray new friends. The first multiplayer online role-playing game is still, for many, the purest and greatest of them all.

The Sims (2000). Simulated daily activities for virtual people; help them and watch them live. For those who think games are all violent and mindless, note that this began the best-selling series of games in history – more than 100 million copies sold, and counting.

Bejeweled (2001). A simple, pretty puzzle game that changed the games industry simply because it could be downloaded in minutes by any computer attached to the internet. Digital distribution is the future, and this title first proved it.

Guitar Hero (2005). Live out your dreams of rock deification with friends gathered round to watch you pummel a plastic guitar. A revolution in cross-media: cool, sociable fun, and a licence to print money for its creators.

Wii Sports (2006). Wave your arms around while holding a white controller. Now anyone could play tennis and go bowling with family and friends in the living room. Nintendo delivered another revolution in gaming with this debut title for its Wii console.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know

André Carrilho
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"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

***

The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and the partner of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition